While doing fieldwork in Japan, I received a strange email message from a restaurant owner in a small fishing town that sits on the Southern coast of the island of Shikoku. The message explained that in an effort to revitalize the local economy, high school students had adapted the local specialty of seared tuna (katsuo tataki) into a burger. The burger was certainly not on the list of the dishes I was planning on investigating but I went along with it. When I arrived at the school, I was greeted with a full TV crew and a writer from the local newspaper. With the help of two high school student, we lined up a dozen locally baked buns flavored with dried bonito flakes, smeared tartar sauce with locally grown Japanese ginger bulb (myoga), carefully placed a leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato and finally stacked slices of seared tuna which had been fished the same morning. As I prepared to bite in the burger, the cameraman, intent on pleasing his audience, focused on my reaction. I looked in the direction of the high school students their eyes full of hope, thought about the restaurant and the community of this small town. “Delicious,” I said with my mouth still full and, just like that, I had inadvertently endorsed a new regional dish.
Japanese cuisine first went global when sushi shops spread throughout the urban dining landscape. Today, ramen shops are rapidly taking over the restaurant scene of large cities across the world. The next big thing to come out of Japan is the izakaya. Izakaya is spelled 居酒屋 in Japanese which translates to sake shop where you can settle yourself. The first izakayas were nothing more than extensions to sake shop where people could sit down and drink the sake they had purchased. As drinking always involves some eating in Japan, these places soon became as renowned for their food rather than their drinks. Izakayas or aka chochin, as they are sometimes referred to by the red lantern that hang outside the entrance, are an ubiquitous part of Japanese culture that needs to be understood in its Japanese context.
During its two hundred years of isolation, Japan pursued a policy that attempted to prevent foreign political and cultural ideas to penetrate the country. The goal was foremost to thwart the growing influence of the Catholic church by effectively cutting Japan off from the rest of the world. The law stated that Japanese leaving the country as well as foreigners entering Japan would be punished by death. This uncompromising edict did not stop the outside world from seeping into Japanese culture. As an island nation, Japan might at first glance appear to be a reclusive country with a culture very different from its immediate neighbor. However, the transmission of new cultural elements such as cuisine rarely respects national boundaries. In turn, these new crops or dishes were adapted to a new ecological and cultural environment. In the case of Japan, these transformations might not appear evident, as they became over time an integral part of the culinary culture. If we take a closer look at Japan’s cuisine, we will quickly realize that although these outside forces are far from obvious, they still manage to permeate the country’s culinary culture.